A Pedagogy of Embodiment: The Life and Work of Queer Playwright Maria Irene Fornés

Tabitha Parry Collins
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, NM
tepc@nmsu.edu

Memran, M. (Producer), & Memran, M. (Director). (2018). The rest I make up [Motion Picture]. United States: Women Make Movies.

Abstract

The Rest I Make Up is a documentary about the life and work of Maria Irene Fornés, known to her friends as Irene, who changed the world of playwriting and directing as well as the ways that playwriting instructors teach the craft. This film follows Fornés on a physical journey from New York to Cuba, Miami, and Seattle while simultaneously documenting her memory loss after the onset of Alzheimer’s. Michelle Memran, filmmaker and friend to Fornés, offers viewers an intimate look into the life of a queer, brown playwright whose works continue to be overshadowed by more mainstream voices. 

Key Words: Maria Irene Fornés, Michelle Memran, embodied pedagogy, playwriting

Sometimes we, as consumers of pop culture and media, are allowed the chance to glimpse into the world of someone else, to see their fears and struggles as well as their moments of joy and celebration. Through the lens of a camera we are offered this chance to watch a friendship grow and change in the face of a life-altering Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The Rest I Make Up is an enchanting interplay between Maria Irene Fornés, an innovative, queer, Cuban-American playwright, and filmmaker Michelle Memran. Fornés is regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights as well as a visionary playwriting teacher. She is responsible for the writing of over forty plays and winner of nine Obie Awards (Off-Broadway Theater Awards). Fornés was deeply involved in the experimental theater movement in New York City where she took on several roles at La Mama Theater, including sewing costumes and book-keeping. Unfortunately, her presence was often overshadowed by her male counterparts. This imbalance was discussed by her contemporaries when they gathered to celebrate their time at La Mama where numerous colleagues bemoaned the ways that Fornés’ accomplishments were ignored in favor of praising the men involved with the theater movement. In this scene, Fornés and her colleagues speak about the ways in which women drove the experimental theater movement and all the unpaid labor they put in to keep their community alive and thriving. 

Following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Fornés gradually stopped writing due to increasing symptoms of memory loss,  but her creative spirit was then sparked through the development of a friendship with Memran, which grew throughout the filming process. When the two began their friendship, Fornés was not writing, but did not know why, and Memran wanted to write, but didn’t know how to begin. Thus began a naturally progressing friendship and collaboration through the medium of filmmaking. The Rest I Make Up is a film made possible through the intimate friendship between filmmaker and film subject. It demonstrates the power of friendship, family, and family-of-choice to persevere despite devastating memory loss. During the filming, Fornés and Memran are able to visit Fornés’ family in Cuba and Miami, which strengthens their bond and allows the filmmaker and the viewers of the film to delve even deeper into Fornés’ memories and see the land she came from. While describing her feelings about returning to Cuba, Fornés states, “In Cuba I feel like I have returned to a long-lost great love!” Her infatuation with her beloved land is etched into her features as she beams into the camera in this scene and it is clear that she cannot wait to share this love with her friend, Memran. 

Not only was Fornés an accomplished playwright, she was also a skilled teacher of playwriting. Using ground-breaking techniques reminiscent of those used in acting workshops, Fornés became a dominant force in the playwriting community and shared strategies that called for writers to begin their work from a creative place and to employ games, similar to those used by actors, to spark creativity and put themselves into the action of the play. Fornés’ pedagogy revolves around the use of the body as well as everyday objects from which she devised the final written project. This was done as a method of helping writers to interact with their own bodies as well as encouraging these writers to connect with their creative, imaginative minds. In the film, Fornés discusses her unique playwriting exercises which included seeing and using a movement, an object, or a written line to begin a scene and then watching the rest of the story unfold. She also shared her technique of drawing words or scenes out of a hat and then writing a script based around those concepts. Fornés’ techniques resonate with those adopted by practitioners of Theater of the Oppressed (TO), which is a series of activities used by the Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal (Boal, 1985). This embodied pedagogy was influenced by educational theorist Paulo Freire and aims to use theater as a method of promoting social and political change (Boal, 1985). Like Fornés’ theater exercises, TO utilizes a variety of performative bodily activities to help transform the reality in which they are living. 

Practitioners of embodied pedagogies, including those who employ TO, assert that, “the body is our method, our subject, our means of meaning making, representing, and performing” (Perry & Medina, 2011, p. 63). These practitioners acknowledge the body, within the context of teaching and learning, as “whole experimental being in motion, both inscribed and inscribing subjectivities” (Perry & Medina, 2011, p. 63) and view the body as a way to create and construct meaning. The playwriting exercises used by Fornés ask writers to connect with the physicality of their bodies to bring their words to life vis-a-vis an exploration of the multiple ways of experiencing the world around them. 

Within the landscape of popular culture, The Rest I Make Up is significant in part because viewers are introduced to an influential , though often overlooked contributor to the avant-garde, experimental theater movement. The contributions and teachings of Fornés have influenced a number of young, Latinx writers and playwrights, including Cherríe Moraga and Eduardo Machado, and continue to influence imaginative style and technique  for modern playwrights (Svich, 2009). Additionally, the pedagogical techniques and strategies created by Fornés have allowed a new generation of playwrights and directors to open their imaginations and get in touch with their creative subconscious, that is, the creative ideas that stem from the subconscious mind which are based on feelings that individuals may not be aware of, experiences they may not have consciously processed, and what they have seen but may not have explicitly noticed. Fornés asserts that her method of writing involves taking ideas from her subconscious mind and allowing  them to create form. She discovers what she is writing by writing it rather than creating a conscious plan or decision about the work she is creating. 

Fornés’ work is feminist at its core, privileging the experiences of women and troubling the notions of race and gender through her work. Fefu and Her Friends, her 1977 drama, is perhaps her best-known play and is described as “A signature work of feminist theater” which “portrayed eight women who, gathered in the home of their friend Fefu…reveal their rivalries, anxieties and sympathies amid the unfolding of multiple conflicts” (Weber, 2018, n.p.). This work, like many others written and directed by Fornés, “grabs the audience by the jugular and doesn’t let go for days” (Pelaez, 2018). Despite her prolific writing and significant influence on other playwrights, Fornés’ work is not well-known, even within playwrighting circles. This is, in part, attributed to her lack of defining style, which is a byproduct of her imaginative nature.  Fornés’ work is also overlooked because she is a queer-identified, woman of color. Because of these intersectional identities that Fornés holds, this documentary is more significant because it helps to bring attention to a creator who has been previously ignored . 

This documentary is an intimate look at the life of one of the most influential female playwrights in America through the eyes of a filmmaker who loves and values Fornés. Both pop culture enthusiasts and pedagogues will benefit from viewing, and possibly owning, this entrancing film. Pop culture scholars would gain the advantage of understanding the life and work of a generally undervalued creator of innovative playwriting techniques. Pedagogues will learn from her unique style of teaching and learning, which focuses on embodied pedagogies as well as discovering new methods of unlocking the writer’s imagination. 

As an individual who is generally uninterested in documentary style films, I was profoundly touched by the intimate look at Fornés’ life captured by talented filmmaker Michelle Memran. While the focus of this film is Fornés and her impact on the playwriting world, the story of the fierce friendship between filmmaker and subject will surely capture the attention of many. Ultimately, this film is a testament to the power of friendship, specifically between two women who view themselves as family, sisters even, despite the decades that separate them. The underlying feminist ideals that drive Fornés’ life are visible in the ways that Fornés and Memran relate to one another throughout the film—with a sense of care and concern for the other and always with the others best interests at heart. Each of the stories, the lives, that Fornés shares with Memran and her camera demonstrate the trust that Irene has in her friend; she shares her joys, struggles, fears, and secrets freely. This insightful and provocative film brings to the forefront this overlooked and undervalued queer woman of color writer. 

Works Cited

Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the oppressed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group. 

Farfan, P. (1997).  Feminism, metatheatricality, and mise-en-scène in Maria Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends. Modern Drama, 40, 442-453. 

Memran, M. (Producer), & Memran, M. (Director). (2018). The rest I make up [Motion Picture]. United States: Women Make Movies.

Perry, M. & Medina C. (2011). Embodiment and performance in pedagogy research investigating the possibility of the body in curriculum experience. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27(3), 62-75. 

Svich, C., Berman, B., Cruz, M., Hébert, J., García Romero, A., Maisel, J., Mayer, O., Ong, H., Schlesinger, L., Solomon, A., & Troyana, A. (2009). The legacy of Maria Irene Fornés: A collection of impressions and exercises. Journal of Performance and Art, 31(3), 1-32. 

Weber, B. (2018, October 31). María Irene Fornés, writer of spare, poetic plays, dies at 88. New York Times.  Retrieved May 07, 2019, from https://www.wral.com/mar-a-irene-forn-s-writer-of-spare-poetic-plays-dies-at-88/17960667/. 

Author Bio

Tabitha Parry Collins is adjunct faculty at New Mexico State University in the college of Teacher Preparation, Administration, and Leadership (TPAL) as well as the Gender and Sexualities department. Their scholarship focuses on queering educational/academic spaces, social justice issues in education, and adolescent and children’s literacy.

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